What is the thing in its essential nature and how is it to be treated? Those are the two fundamental questions for the artist. They apply both to the artist’s subject and the artistic medium. The artist considers: what is the true nature of that element of the world of which I wish to make art, and what is the truest nature of the medium I use to make the art? Often, these questions arise as an opposition, a choice between purity and invention. We might alter the former term to call it “simplicity,” but simplicity suggests, instead, a consideration of style and its effects, without necessarily any consciousness of the metaphysical question.
I am returned to these thoughts by the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s recent, long overdue retrospective of the films of Claude Sautet (1924-2000), which ran from August 1-9. I had time to revisit Le choses de la vie (The Things of Life, 1970), Vincent, François Paul…et les autres (Vincent, François, Paul and the Others, 1974), and Une histoire simple (A Simple Story, 1978). However, from César et Rosalie (1972) and Mado (1976), among other films from Sautet’s 70s peak, to Un Coeur en hiver (A Heart in Winter, 1992) from his late, last flowering, and the U.S. theatrical premier of the early Max et les ferrailleurs (Max and the Junkmen, 1971), the prime of Sautet’s directorial career was under review. I saw these films for the first time in many years and now have a clear recognition of one reason I was originally so responsive to Sautet and continue to be. He chose invention.
As is always so, there can be extremes in either direction, including rarely and remarkably, extremes that work. But not infrequently artists over invent, confusing our attention. Often they try to be too pure, too simple. “Less is more,” is one of the tiredest clichés in advice to the writer. Incontrovertibly, frequently, less is less.
The impetus to be simple is to focus on the object. In tension with that impulse is the drive toward self-expression. In the former instance, the creator seeks a way to get out of the way; the artist is a midwife seeking to deliver the thing into the world of clear perception, where we may better apprehended it. The creator conceives the task as not so much to create, as to allow the thing, as it were, to show itself – though, of course, this showing is always as the artist sees the object showing itself. So it does not take a significant shift in perspective then to shift attention from the object to the artist’s seeing of the object: not the thing, but how the artist sees the thing. And what’s the difference anyway?
We go back and forth, from one era to another, or after several generations. We do it in our mundane pursuits and pleasures, too. What is the best way to drink coffee? Black, in order to taste the purity of the bean, the essential freshness of that particular roast? Or do we at some point begin to feel inventive? Say, what about some cream in that coffee? Cinnamon? (Brandy?) What a creation! Something entirely new and wonderful.
Yes, someone says, but that’s not coffee. If you really want to taste the coffee – the real thing in its true form – you need to sip it black. Try some Kenya AA. Taste that winey acidity around the edges of the tongue? You lose that in the cream. There are espresso bars in New York and Los Angeles – probably elsewhere – where the baristas do not offer sweetener. No corruption over those counters. Yet, of course, in Italy, where I hear tell they know some things about espresso, many men and women of refined taste will drop a cube into a ristretto.
“Direct treatment of the ‘thing,’ whether subjective or objective,” Ezra Pound wrote as the first dictum of Imagism in 1912. But Pound also said, over twenty years later, “Make it new.” So what must one do, when one has been treating the thing directly, purely, for too long? Why, one must become inventive, and in new ways, or old ways newly conceived.
With film, it did not take long after the advent of sound for some to begin to believe that audio had led film away from its pure visual nature. Film music, particularly (though, of course there had been, before sound, theatrical musical accompaniment), was considered by some to manipulate the viewer’s emotional response – presupposing, that is, that the visual and dramatic elements alone were providing more direct access to reality, from which any emotional reaction is necessarily truly earned. Music, generating the most immediate emotional response, was thus a cheat. Some filmmakers have committed themselves to film without musical scores, or offered soundscapes intended to suggest mental or expressionistic, but not emotional colours.
Yet if the dishonest manufacture of emotional engagement is a sin of impurity one seeks to avoid, how apparently easy it is to forget that plots can be mawkish, and dialogue sentimental, and the acting melodramatic, and the images overlaid with romantic haze. Thus, some filmmakers nearly eliminate dialogue – and even plot – or opt for non-professional actors, or shoot in black and white, or with bleached out colour or on real streets with real rubble after real wars, with shaky handheld cameras…. Pure.
The real thing.
What I saw again in Sautet is a filmmaker who used all of the elements of film with steady, compelling power and in nearly perfect balance. In his invention, he practiced the belief that whatever senses they are to which the film form is technically capable of delivering us are those that define film’s essential nature. Existence precedes essence. Invention in balance is purity.
Sautet told stories mostly of middle class French life, for which detractors – those for whom the middle class must always be a political object lesson – criticized him. For some, middle class life can never be particular, personal lives contextualized in culture, time, and place; rather, middle classness must be depicted always as a social malady, either ideological cause or spiritual symptom. In these cases, then, we do not even refer to the “middle class,” which is often, in liberal democracies, a political designation of striving national aspiration and economic empathy. When, rather, it is aesthetically or ideologically politicized, the middle class is the bourgeoisie, haute when ridiculed, petit when contemned.
However, Sautet represented his characters at an immediate temporal and relational level, without historical or ideological didacticism: they are indeed striving, small, loyal and compromised, friends, bon vivants, failures, and sell- outs, despairing and hopeful, passionately in love and out, and fully, sensuously enraptured and ensnared by “the things of life,” the title of the film that gave Sautet a reputation, and which seems so aptly to sum up his vision and his style. How best to convey this immersion in a certain French quotidian – what became for so many the vision of French life in those years – than to utilize fully, symphonically all the elements of film together?
Frequent collaborator Jean-Loup Dabadie’s screenplay of Vincent, François, Paul and the Others is literate and sharp, like a reasonably smart and entertaining friend at a party, but you will go home recalling not a single brilliant thing that was said. No one quotes favourite lines from Sautet films. The plot consists, as in The Things of Life and A Simple Story, of only the smaller and greater crises in the lives of some middle-aged and younger people. Composer Philippe Sarde, another regular collaborator, still at work, and ubiquitous in the French cinema of the 70s, provides a score alternately melancholy and unobtrusively buoyant, projecting both the intense drama of our personal turning points and the common hopefulness that will lead us from one day to the next.
From a middle distance in Vincent, François, Paul and the Others, characters are often seen through glass, of home windows, office windows, car windows. They appear less theatrically arranged than observed, even spied upon, as in the closing shot, when the four male friends, three older, one younger, emerge from a café as from all of their recent travails, talking in tones, along with the music, of mild, probably fanciful hopefulness for the future. They are picked out in the camera’s focus amid the many pedestrians and the busy traffic through which they cross the street, and when they pause at the next intersection, the camera freezes them still in the most artful, causal assemblage of postures and gazes – a mid-shot, through a telephoto lens, as from a spy film. From somewhere in the galaxy, they came to watch and study, a slide presented of some people of a certain age in a city at a given time in a region they call France.
In this scene, as throughout the film, the camera, dialogue, acting and music all work together in seamless harmony, none overpowering the others, to create the total effect. The acting in Sautet’s films is among the most natural to be found in film: not naturalistic – affectless, moody, or roughhewn – but easy, unstudied, and fluid. Along with the larger names of semi-regulars, Michel Piccoli, Yves Montand, and Romy Schneider, there were long-serving French acting mainstays like Claude Brasseur, Stephane Audran, Bruno Cremer, and Marie Dubois. In Vincent, François, Paul and the Others’ most profoundly affecting scene, Montand’s Vincent sits in a café with his soon to be ex-wife, Audran’s Catherine. The dialogue is spare and unremarkable. We see, instead, on Catherine’s deeply empathetic face, her slow understanding that Vincent is in the halting process of asking if they can try again, and the reality that it is too late, that she has moved on. She is, in fact, leaving the country.
Is it for work, Vincent asks.
No. Not just for work.
Montand glances all around him as he continues with growing despondency in his failing effort. Not only has Vincent lost his business, but now, too, his wife, for good.
In truth, those things of life with which Sautet concerned himself very much included, as for Vincent, the working life of his characters and the economic realities of his time. In A Simple Story, much of the plot hinges on the recent acquisition of a mid-sized business at which most of the characters work, and through which many workers are losing their jobs. Though there are no obvious dialectics of labour and capital – the director’s focus remains almost steadfastly microcosmic – Sautet’s humanism is very clear-eyed about the conditions of ideological development. When Roger Pigaut’s Jérôme, dismissed after a long career, commits suicide, Romy Schneider’s Marie, upbraids ex-husband Georges, played by Bruno Cremer, for not having helped Jérôme enough. George had tried, but Jérôme had lost his will and his ability. There was nothing more George could do. It might be so, says Marie, but she condemns it as an ethics of the strong only. Maybe, says George, and the reunion with which the two have been flirting is in this judgment now ended.
Still, they are none of them simple stories for Sautet. Jérôme and his wife, Gabrielle, have been the idealized older couple for Marie, but Marie learns from Gabrielle after George’s death that he had regularly cheated on Gabrielle and done little to hide it. He was committed neither to his wife nor his life, and Gabrielle will quickly now, despite her pain, try to make a new one. They are people living these lives, not ideas.
Indeed, A Simple Story is easily comparable to an emblematic American film of the 70s, from the same year, Paul Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman. But while the satirical Mazursky sets out to offer a statement on the times – his female protagonist’s developing independence after rejection and divorce, and of a selfhood separate from commitment – Sautet’s representation of his female lead’s similar choice is entirely grounded in personal circumstance. Marie begins the film by aborting her lover’s child because she knows she is going to leave him. She ends the film choosing to keep the child of her once-more rejected ex-husband. She is going to live together, now, in supportive friendship with Gabrielle, a development remarked upon in conversation with friends, but not trumpeted. The closing image, to somber music, of Marie in a garden chair basking with upturned face under the sun, is offered as no brave cultural development, but only as this moment in the life of an ordinary woman seeking to live at one with her feelings. But, of course, that cultural moment more easily enabled Marie’s choices, and Sautet reflected them affirmatively.
Even in the Sautet film perhaps most characteristic of the filmmaker’s class focus and of his perceived deficiencies, The Things of Life, Suatet’s inventive orchestration of many filmic elements belies that received critique. Only a single scene in the film offers any gesture of recognition to a surrounding social condition. Michel Piccoli’s Pierre is an architect who rails against the prospect that his latest apartment commission will rise overlooking garages, not gardens. But as that slender recognition is one of social loss, so, too, is the film’s entire backdrop of affluent middle class appurtenance a backdrop of loss. More than the film revels sensuously in the material things of life, its very conceit is one of the retrospective loss of all things.
The film opens with the car crash from which Pierre will ultimately die. However, beneath the opening credits and the rueful sweep of Sarde’s romantic melody, we follow the car speeding backwards in time to its recomposition, and in retrospective travel in time down the road to its start. This is the stance of the film: the things of life recognized and appreciated in loss and regret, like the table George is upset to learn from ex-wife Catherine (Lea Masari) has broken in the house that is no longer his, on the island where he no longer vacations, as a ritual of a marriage that is over. Everything is experienced in the recollection of the fatally injured George. Noting in his fading consciousness the blades of grass, the top of a policeman’s shoe – more things of life – he lies in a rural field after being thrown from his car, felled by his sudden encounter on the road with a tractor and a stalled old lorry, no one special, surrounded by strangers to whom he is just some guy who was driving too fast.
To conceive that the film’s things are the treasured pieces of furniture or the island home or the sailboat from which in final consciousness George drifts away from his ex-wife and son, to sink into the water in death, is to miss everything, and what they represent. George has, in fact, before the crash, and after fearful vacillation, committed in his mind to letting go of the past and to fully embracing his new life with Romy Schneider’s Hélène. What Sautet does, in narrative, visual, and musical motifs woven so finely into the film, is to construct his own kind of dialectic between the material world and memory, between the thing and its living value.
In a sense, it is the rich, the new and growing rich, anyway – the manufacturers of wealth, who are always creating more things, striving to accumulate more things – who look to the material future, and are seeking always to expand it. On the contrary, the middle class dream is not of a surfeit of things superficially and wastefully underappreciated and unused. The middle class aspiration is toward the more limited accumulation of things in safe and comforting abundance, enough to enjoy many pleasures and to feel unthreatened by the return – in one’s own or from one’s ancestral life – of a perilous existence naked in the world without things.
But things decay. They have their disappearance and loss written into them, and with them the moments in life – children’s height measurements on a wall, memorable vacations, a past when two people were in love – that they symbolize. The pursuit of wealth is an attempt materially to conquer the world. Bourgeois comfort, in contrast, more modestly, is about shelter from the storm, but the winds are always blowing, and the drafts are seeping through the cracks. After George’s death in surgery, Catherine discovers among his effects the letter he had written to Hélène, intending a final split – a decision he reversed before he called Hélène to drive to meet him. He thinks while he lies injured in the field that he must destroy the letter. Catherine destroys it herself, to spare Hélène, believing, then, only the best of her lost future with George – that he was returning to her. Hélène, believing the same, turns in grief from the hospital’s front desk, cast back out alone into the world, where she walks, to disappear in the final image, into a blurry loss of focus that is only light and colour, the indistinctness of things.
In Sautet’s world, amid the café meals and quick drinks, and the hearty Sunday lunches in the country, the spectre of failure, joblessness, and a loss of meaning are always banging at the door. Love and something to believe in are slipping out beneath it. It is a world evoked in rich particularity, pure in its inventive multiplicity of means and manners, a whole richly conceived, a humanity fully felt.